Gion Matsuri: A Historical Moment – Going back to the Past

Tradition comes back as do the SAKI and ATO festivals – A Matsuri Revival in 2014

  1. Gion Matsuri – synonymous to Kyoto's summer, is Kyoto's biggest and most important and one of Japan's three largest festivals. The city of Kyoto becomes filled with the energy of people who have waited for this exact moment a year ago, except, this year things are going to change!
     
    This year, exactly 49 years in history, the Gion Festival will return back to its original form. The current united-procession will be again, separated into the Saki Matsuri and the Ato Matsuri and this means that the year 2014 will truly be special for everyone who witnesses and participates in this historic moment.
     
    The Saki Matsuri, its style and schedules will basically stay the same, and the parade being gorgeous and boisterous with many floats as usual. In contrast, for the revived Ato Matsuri, it will be held in a much quieter atmosphere as there will be no stalls, nor extra goodies, etc. For tourists who can stay bit longer, you may have a great chance to see the contrast of both the gorgeous and fun Saki Matsuri along with the solemn and beautiful Ato Matsuri like the light and shadow of the festival.
     
    Traditional rituals and events related to this amazing festival are held throughout the month of July. Join in this year's memorable Gion Festival and experience the wonders of Kyoto's history, crafts and its heart seen through the warmth of its people.
     
    History of Gion Matsuri
     
    Throughout history, Japan has suffered many times from serious epidemics, floods, fires, earthquakes and recently tsunami. These were always viewed as signs that the “gods” and “goddesses” were not pleased. To appease the deities and pray for the deceased, rituals called goryo-e were held which over time, developed into festivals associated with a certain shrine. The Gion Matsuri, one of Japan's oldest and largest goryo-e festivals, is dedicated to Yasaka Shrine (also known as the Gion Shrine).
     
    The first goryo-e in Kyoto was held in 869 in response to a devastating plague. In desperation, the reigning emperor decreed that special prayers be recited at Yasaka Shrine. The prayers were successful and from then on were repeated any time the imperial capital was beset by a plague or natural disaster. This was how the Gion Festival came to be.
     
    Though the festival began as a religious purification ritual, at the end of the Kamakura period (1185-1333) it had also become a way for certain craft guilds and kimono textile merchant families to show off their wealth and expertise.
     
    From the late 16th century onwards, as a result of the growing prosperity of Kyoto's textile merchants, textiles from China, Persia, and even Europe, imported via the Silk Road, were added to the floats. During the Edo period (1600-1868) and early Meiji period (1868-1912), the floats and the city of Kyoto were badly damaged by war fires on several occasions.However, each time the citizens worked hard to rebuild everything and the festival continued to grow in popularity and fame.
     
    Behind the Scenes The Saki Matsuri and Ato Matsuri – Revival after almost half a century
     
    In traditional Japanese festivals, people transfer the deity from one shrine to a special place during the festival, and then, return it to the original place as the festival ends. Therefore, two rituals are naturally very important: the one to welcome the deity and the other to return it to the original place.
     
    The ritual to carry the deity out is called the Shinko-sai Festival while the one that returns the deity is called the Kanko-sai Festival.
     
    In the Gion Matsuri Festival, the Shinko-sai Festival is held on the 17th and the Kanko-sai Festival is on the 24th of July. Gorgeously decorated floats were considered to be the preliminary celebration before the important mikoshi processions. Also, there is an important meaning to entertain the deity with beautiful crafts & treasures and with special kinds of festive music, to harmonize the religious solidarity and joyfulness together in this special occasion.
     
    The float parade prior to the Shinko-sai Festival is called the Saki Matsuri and the parade prior to the Kanko-sai Festival is called the Ato Matsuri. Hence, the original Gion Matsuri Festival used to have two float processions.
     
    During Japan's high economical growth period, the parade routes had to be changed due to increasing car traffic on roads, etc. In 1966, the Saki Matsuri and Ato Matsuri were merged and only one parade took place on July 17th until last year, 2013.
     
    There are several reasons for the revival of the original festival this year, but one reason is that the voices on reviving the original festival have increased recently, to rethink and recognize the meaning of the Gion Festival once again. The second is that the numbers of locals who knew and experienced the original festival held more than half a century ago are now slowly decreasing, and it is regarded as the best timing to return them while those locals are still able to share their advice to younger generations to inherit the festival's traditions.
     
    So this year, the Gion Matsuri Festival has returned to its original form. In order to succeed the tradition of the festival faithfully, two float parades will again commence. The original form of the festival that has existed for over 1000 years will return to the present-day,at last.
     



The information on this site is reprinted from the July 2014 issue of Kyoto Visitor's Guide. ©AD BRAIN INC. Published on 14.07.10

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